SCoJeC’s latest event in the Highlands was a discussion of family history, when Ellen Galford interviewed our Outreach and Events Manager Fiona Frank about her book, Candles, Conversions and Class – Five Generations of a Scottish Jewish family.
Appropriately for part of our contribution to Refugee Festival Scotland, the event also strengthened links with another immigrant community, as it took place at SHIMCA, the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Moray Chinese Association. Even more aptly, “SHIMCA” is very similar to the Hebrew word simchah, meaning “celebration”!
As well as Inverness, participants came from Dingwall and Elgin, nearly 50 miles away, and even someone from Glasgow who decided to use it as an excuse for a short holiday. The event brought Christians and Jews together, with a common interest in connecting with Jewish culture. Some people talked about their heritage, one man saying he was an eighth generation Scottish Jew, with family going back nearly 200 years.
Ellen, who has also published an account of her own family history, began by asking Fiona what had led her to undertake an oral history study of the descendants of Zvi David and Sophia Hoppenstein, and how she had set about it. Fiona talked about how she’d been able to build up relationships with different members of the family over several interviews, and the importance of getting every member of the family to agree to participate because they might tell the same story in a slightly different way.
Fiona talked about class differences within the family that arose because the men had better access to education and thus better earning power. She recounted some really lovely coincidences that had led to her uncovering stories that otherwise might have remained hidden forever. She had worked for some time at the Ben Uri Gallery in London, and the director’s father had, as a young man in Glasgow, been the family doctor of some of the second generation Hoppensteins. When Fiona spoke to him, despite the fact that he was in his late nineties, he had perfect recall and was able to provide background information for several of the strands of the family tale.
There were other coincidences in the room, too: one couple who had travelled from near Elgin only discovered during the discussion that they were both related by marriage to different members of the Hoppenstein family; and Ellen herself was also distantly related through marriage to one of them!
We had a wide ranging discussion during the afternoon, including topics such as the long history of Jewish people in Inverness; the conversos of Spain; the validity of conversions when they were forced, or done without the knowledge of the people being converted; and questions of identity and belief such as whether a person can be an atheist and also Jewish.
Everyone enjoyed the kosher buffet of bagels, smoked salmon, cream cheese, pickled cucumbers, and rugelach [chocolate croissants], which Fiona had brought up on the train from Glasgow. Two of the Jewish participants remarked how happy they were to find a kosher buffet at an event in the Highlands, and another commented, "Lively discussion on family backgrounds. Really interesting to hear how you conducted your research – as usual Jewish geography works its magic as I have a family connection with one of the people you interviewed!"